Sunday, April 29, 2012

Third Sunday after Easter

1 Peter 2:11-19 / John 16:16-22

What counts as happiness? In the light of Jesus Christ risen from the dead, what ought we to expect from Christian living in the world?

We might easily imagine that our hope, our joy in Christ's victory over sin and death would be grounded in a manifest transformation of the conditions in the world. We might well hope that that Messianic vision foretold by the prophets, a world characterized by peace and plenty, in which those who had suffered before are raised up, while those who had lived off of the dignity of other persons, making these others to be alienated from their humanity while perverting their own, will be laid low. However, as much as we might expect such a world to issue forth from the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, such is not the case. We need only look at the news, or in our neighborhoods, or within our household, or even within our own lives, to see that, however defeated it may be, the world remains a powerful force in the lives of all, believer and unbeliever alike.

While for some this might count against confidence in the truth of the Gospel, Jesus anticipated this worry, and he offered his apostles, and through them offered us, another way to understand the life of faith in the world. Suffering, he suggests, while not to be desired of itself, is not incompatible with joy, any more than the pregnant women regrets her giving birth to a child when the time is come, even though willing the child's birth means necessarily willing the pain, and indeed the risk to her life and the life of her child, that every pregnancy, no matter how well monitored, always entails. Even so, for all of the pain, the blood, sweat, tearing, agony, and exhaustion, no mother who sees the world rightly can call this anything but happiness, for joy that a man is born into the world.

This is also why, however much it is right that Christians, especially those who have political voice in their societies, seek to bring the secular order in line with that good which is possible by human natural effort and open to that good which comes from a free embrace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we need not see our limitation, exclusion, or even marginalization in political discourse as a sign of defeat. This political anguish is no more cause to behave poorly in our private and public lives, no more reason to give up our commitment to be leaven in the societies in which we live, than the risk and pain of childbirth is cause for mothers to reject the children in their wombs. It is in our unshakable confidence in the victory of the risen Lord that we can, even in the face of social or political defeat, nonetheless continue to act so blamelessly before the world that we may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men and that, in light of our faithful witness to the joy of the Gospel, they may, by the good works which they behold in us, glorify God in the day of visitation.

We are, brothers and sisters, on the side of victory, and Christ's victory marks every part in our life, even our sufferings and defeats in this vale of tears, with the same unconquerable joy that the apostles found in the risen Lord. So also you now indeed have sorrow: but I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice: and your joy no man shall take from you, says the Lord.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Second Sunday after Easter

1 Peter 2:21-25 / John 10:11-16

Christ suffered for us, leaving you and example, that you should follow in his steps ...

In contemporary homiletics, it is generally considered bad form to speak to the congregation in the second person plural. The preacher, so it is argued, should be first among those to whom he preaches. So, he ought either to speak to or rather about himself directly, noting his own difficulties and his own joys in the grace of Jesus Christ, or else he is, probably more commonly, to preach as one of the whole assembly. He is, that is to say, to speak in terms of "we" and "us", making sure both that he remembers, and that the congregations can see that he remembers, his own need to listen to and receive the word of God, to be a fellow traveler on the road to the Kingdom.

St Peter, however, rejects this advice entirely. In his first letter, while he happily includes himself among those for whom Christ suffered and died — Christ suffered for us — he is equally clear in excluding himself, at least rhetorically, from the exhortation to follow in Christ's footsteps. For you, he says, quite notably not we, were as sheep going astray, but you — again, excluding himself — are now converted to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. What are we supposed to make of this? Are we to think that Peter imagines that the exhortation he gives does not apply to himself? Are we to pretend that the man who thrice denied his Lord during the Passion need not be numbered among those who have gone astray, nor even among those who are now restored to Jesus Christ as Shepherd and Bishop?

If we choose to hear Peter's words this way, we will have missed a crucial part of Christ's plan for his Church. While it is true that all true authority, all true priesthood in the Church rests in the Head, in Jesus Christ himself, the fact remains that Christ's Body, the Church, was from a design formed from before the dawn of time, a structured body, an organized body, a hierachical body. More to the point, Christ intended, and intends even now, that we receive the graces of his redeeming work not outside of the ministry of his Body, the Church, but precisely in and through the Church he has given us. There is, in other words, no room or excuse for dividing the Church between "the people" and "the hierarchy" if, by that division, we imagine that the former is to teach and instruct the latter. We have been given the episcopate, the papacy itself as a continuation of the vicariate given to Peter, so that Christ might continue to exhort us to come to him. This voice, then, the voice of Christ in the Church, is meant to come to us not merely as one of those to whom it was directed, but even more as Christ himself addressing his beloved. That those who bear this burden have, do now, and will continue to fall short of the message they proclaim is part of the mystery of the grace of the risen Christ, that through the sinful and the bent, God can communicate to us the perfection of life and joy enjoyed by Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

There are, no doubt, many occasions to resist the exhortations of our pastors. We can surely, if we had the mind to do so, dissect, critique, and so finally reject the teaching they put before us. Yet, in doing so, are we indeed any closer to the life offered us in the risen Lord? When we imagine that by the teaching ministry of the Church we have been reviled, we have suffered, been threatened, and judged unjustly, can we claim fidelity to Christ by speaking ill of his ministers and rejecting their words? Or, shall we accept their teaching, even if it comes to us as a burden or a cross, and, submitting ourselves neither to their judgment nor even to our own, but only to the one who judges justly, and so find ourselves at peace with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, being dead to sins that we might, without rancor or resentment, live to justice.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Low Sunday

1 John 5:4-10 / John 20:19-31

Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?

How do we expect conquerors to behave? Rather, how ought they to behave? We know all too well how victors can and do act. Perhaps out of fear of needing once again to go to battle, perhaps as a release of tension under which they had lived for far too long, perhaps indulging wicked desires that fear of failure had held in check, or perhaps for any number of reasons neither we nor they can name, victors in even otherwise just causes have a terrible tendency of engaging the worst kind of behavior, the most reprehensible kind of license on those whom they have overcome. For some, were it not that the evils defeated are altogether worthy of conquest, this horrifying display of cruelty and arbitrary violence by the conqueror is reason enough to avoid the battle altogether.

So, it comes perhaps as something of a surprise to hear that we are, in fact, victors, conquerors, soldiers on the winning side. Even granting that the battle was won altogether by our head, Jesus Christ, we are nonetheless reminded by St John that the victory is ours, the spoils our ours. To believe that Jesus is the Son of God, to have a saving faith in the work and more than that in the person of the Savior, is itself to have overcome, to be victorious. This is a surprise because many of us might expect that the world in general, and rather more pressingly our personal world, ought to look far less problem-free if we were in fact victors. We might have little trouble accepting that, in the midst of an ongoing war, the battlefield will be less than pristine. To discover that the enemy has been defeated and put to flight, but still to witness a world that, from our best lights, looks like a world in conflict where the victor is uncertain, can by more than a little unsettling.

Yet, this is where our problem begins. In fearing that Christ's work on the Cross and his rising victorious from the Tomb is not enough, in worrying that we need to hold tightly, and defensively, to guard and protect any little gain we think we have made in what we imagine to be an ongoing war, we become all too willing to absolve ourselves from a vicious kind of ruthlessness against those who recently have, or still continue to, oppose our vision. Like undisciplined soldiers set free to pillage as a reward for our victory, we try as we can to humiliate our enemy, and all those who have collaborated with him. We do not want to have to fight this fight again, and we will accept almost any means to avoid fighting it again.

Even so, the Good News of this Octave Day of Easter, the eighth day of the Eighth Day, the renewal of that victory we celebrated so joyously only a week ago, is that we not only can, we must be gracious victors. In our faith in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, we have already won, already overcome. The spoils are already ours, and there is no fear that this victory won will one day be lost. We not only can, we must, in light of the glory of the Resurrection, be gracious, kind, and full of clemency to those who have in the past or even now make common cause with our defeated enemies — Sin, Hell, and Death. We may pity them that they want to continue a lost cause. We may need now and again to restrain their ultimately vain attempt to restore their masters to power. What we must not do is relinquish our joy in the victory of Jesus Christ, and thus we must never fail to forgive, never fail to show largesse and forebearance even where we had and have been shown none.

This is our victory day! This is the eighth day of the Resurrection, a sign to the world of Christ's lasting victory over his enemies, what would be, if they were open to it, their joy and victory as well. Can we be gracious to those who have opposed us, and who oppose us still? Can we, confident that we cannot lose what Christ has won, open our hearts even most generously and with heartbreaking generosity to those who would insist on making themselves our enemies?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Sunday

1 Corinthians 5:7-8 / Mark 16:1-7

When the myrrh-bearing women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, came very early in the morning, the first day of the week, to anoint the body of Jesus, whom did they hope to see? Not Jesus, surely, since they knew he had died. Yet, when they saw the stone rolled away, the stone which was very great and which they worried would prevent their act of mercy — Who shall roll back the stone from the door of the sepulcher?— did they begin even then to hope? Did they imagine, in a dim and confused way, not yet graced with the gifts of the Holy Spirit to recall, understand, and believe what Jesus had told them, that perhaps, in a hope beyond all hope, that Jesus, and not merely his corpse, would be there to greet them? And when they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed with a white robe, were they, along with being astonished, also disappointed? This young man, clearly sent by God, clearly mighty enough to roll back the stone, was not their beloved Jesus, not the man they had followed and whose work they had supported all of this time. At this peak moment, when they were invited to share the fulness of faith in Jesus Christ and the saving work of his Resurrection, they saw not Christ, but an angel, a messenger.

On this Easter day, our encounter with the risen Lord is just as likely to be open to disappointment. We have traveled long on this spiritual path, through the season of Lent, through the drama of the sacred Triduum, and now we have come to see the Lord Jesus Christ, to embrace him who has broken the power of death and given us hope for life immortal. Yet, when we go outdoors today, or even when we look across the table at our brunch, whom will we see?

Jesus never meant us to witness the Resurrection itself. He never meant us to see that dazzling and unspeakable miracle by which earthly life was transformed and drawn up irrevocably into the fulness of the life of God. What he did mean for us was to witness to the Resurrection, and to receive the witness of others. It is not in finding the body, dead or alive, in the Tomb which is our goal, but rather the restoration of the bond of love with those who have followed Christ that is at the heart of Easter joy. Christ is risen, and in his rising, has given us all, each and every one of us, a new life quickened by nothing other than sincerity and truth, at he wishes us to have joy in him precisely by sharing that joy with everyone we meet. To meet a joyful Christian alive in the promise of Easter is precisely what it means, here and now, to encounter to power of the risen Lord.

Be not affrighted; ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, Who was crucified: He is risen, He is not here; behold the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples, and Peter, that He goeth before you into Galilee: there you shall see Him, as He told you.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Holy Saturday

Genesis 1:1-31; 2:1-2 / Exodus 14:24-31; 15:1 / Isaiah 4:2-6 / Deuteronomy 31:22-30 / Colossians 3:1-4 / Matthew 28:1-7

It is not normally a pleasant thing to have someone tell us that we are dead. As an idiom, "You're dead!," while not meant to be taken quite literally, is certainly intended with hostility. The speaker is warning us of the dire consequences of what we have done, or what we are likely to do. So, too, is it not a joy to hear from another that we are dead to them. Such a claim is meant to be an erasure, a blotting out of who we are, of our very existence, rendering us, at least in emotional impact, as though we never had been. Moreover, while it is never a good thing to hear either of these phrases, or any like them, we might well hope that, after our observance of Lent, on this Vigil when we recall the victory Jesus Christ won over Hell itself, trampling down death by death and bestowing life to those in the tomb, on this night of all nights we would not hear such words.

Yet, after all of the drama of the Paschal Vigil, we hear from St Paul the very words that would otherwise sound of hostility, and yet are meant to be Good News: You are dead. Just what is it about our death that Paul intends for the Colossians, and intends through his message to them also for us, to be a source of hope, joy, and life eternal? How is it that the message not that we will die, but are in fact dead, is placed before us as the glory of the Passover victory of Jesus Christ?

Death, however, is only bad news, is only a threat, if we are not in fact otherwise alive, and alive in a way that answers the deepest desires of our heart. To be reminded of death, that is, requires that we in fact can hear the reminder, indeed need to hear it, so that the life which we do have can blossom in glory, the life we have left behind can remain among the tombs, where it belongs. As Paul tells the Colossians, they are dead not because they are no more, but because their life is hid with Christ in God. They are dead only to this world, only because in the joy of the Easter mystery they have risen with Christ. Indeed, to be alive in Jesus Christ is, in the most fundamental way, not even to be altogether in this world, but to have a common life and a proper communion with the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God.

This is why we need to remember that we are dead. The restless dead, ghosts and revenants, are, according to folklore, troubled precisely because, in some sense, they forget, or refuse to admit, that they are in fact dead. In this unhappy failure to mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth, these restless dead are doomed to sorrow and pain, unable to join in communion with those whose life is earthly, save is a terrifying or corrupting way, and yet, because they will not accept their death, unable to enjoy the deeper flourishing that comes from entering into a life beyond the grave.

While we as Christians reject this kind of folklore, it does hold in it an echo of what Paul urged on the Colossians, and what the Church exhorts us to hear this day. Jesus Christ has conquered and glory fills the earth, and we are part of that victory. We, even now, even on this side of the grave, are nonetheless in the saving power of the Redeemer dead to the world, but alive to heaven, alive in Christ, alive to the very mystery of God. To live otherwise, to try to continue to live in communion with the world that has been overcome in our baptism is to continue in a mockery of life, a perpetual state of rejection of all that is our hope and our life. To accept our death, the watery death of baptism, our death to continued sin in penance, and our death to the old man in our holy communion with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is to taste, even now, the glory of our Lord, victor over Death, Hell, and Sin.

Why should we be glad to hear we are dead? Quite simply because it means that when Christ, whose coming is sure, appears before the whole world, we will already be with him, Who is our life, and then we also shall appear with Him in glory.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

Hosea 6:1-6 / Exodus 12:1-11 / John 18:1-40; 19:1-42

There seems something off with the poetry, with the æsthetics of Good Friday. I do not speak here of the bloody Passion, which can only be beautiful morally and spiritually; to delight in the sufferings of the Son as such is in every way disordered. No, I speak here rather of the setting, and specifically of the theme of light. We have, to be sure, contained in the memory of the other Gospels the darkening of the sun. Yet, in John, that physical darkness is conspicuously not there. Apart from the miraculous flow of blood and water from the side of Christ when pierced with a spear, the Passion and Death are, as John retells them, remarkably unremarkable events, at least to the public eye.

There is, to be sure, a kind of dark poetry in the providential timing of the formal condemnation of Jesus Christ before Pilate and the crowd. As John tells us, is was about the sixth hour, which is to say noon, when the sun is highest in the sky, that Pilate both, unwittingly and himself without saving faith, nonetheless proclaimed by in the full brightness of day the truth so long avoided — Behold your King. — and, yielding to the pressure of the priests and the crowd, and the less than veiled accusations of infidelity to Cæsar,  and delivered Him to them to be crucified. That is, the Sun of Justice, the light of the world, who will judge the world, is himself judged in the full light of the noonday sun.

Even so, we might well have put more darkness in the story, had it been written by us. We might have arranged, those centuries before, that the Passover be celebrated not at the first full moon of spring, but rather at the new moon, the night devoid of the helpful and illuminating light of the moon, a light which makes negotiating the darkness of night a far less perilous affair. Would we not prefer to tell of that darkest of all nights as the time when the hour of darkness had come, when the powers of evil were allowed to have their sway over the Son of Man?

Whatever we might imagine, surely we can trust in the truth of God's poetry over our own. Is it for no reason that the Passion occurs by as much light as the world can afford, that even the wicked judgment made by the Sanhedrin at night is afforded the full light of the moon by which to see? Might it not be that we see in the Passion that none could, at those final hours, claim the defense of obscurity, that none might defend himself later by asserting that he just was unable to see clearly what he was doing? Even the Synoptic Gospels remind us that the sun is darkened not through the course of the Passion, but at Christ's death. It is as if to say that no one, however darkened their wills, was really and fully able to plead ignorance, to plead an insufficiency of light.

More than that, the light of Good Friday, of the full moon of spring and of the noonday sun, is also a reminder of hope. We can, all too easily, forget that even in the worst of his Passion, the terrible death of the Lord is less something done to him as it is something he is doing, the blessed paradox of a passion which is, more fundamentally, an action. Thou shouldst not have any power against Me, unless it were given Thee from above. This also means that our sins, the worst rebellions we raise against the kingship of Jesus Christ are not, and cannot be final. However dark we try to make the world by our disobedience, the light of the world, Jesus Christ, cannot and will not be snuffed out. He remains there, through it all, to receive us, if we receive him, outside the empty Tomb.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday (Mass of the Last Supper)

1 Corinthians 11:20-32 / John 13:1-15

There is a kind of anxiety in some parts of the Church every year over the washing of the feet, the Mandatum which gives this day its name "Maundy." The rite itself is ancient, and it has seen several adaptations — as a special rite for the catechumens about to be baptized, as a ritual of generosity to the poor at Medieval monasteries, and even in the modern age as an adaptation of this monastic rite by the emperors of Austria. Why the present trouble? It seems as though the faithful are not agreed as to what the rite means, and so fight over who it is that should do the washing (the priest alone, the whole parish staff, or even every member of the assembly) and who it is whose feet should be washed (twelve select men, or any twelve persons of any sex, the parish staff, the whole assembly, and so on). Whatever decision is made, someone seems bound to be not merely disappointed, but actually positively incensed and offended. Even the choice not to perform the rite at all cannot pass without sharp annoyance.

Without suggesting any special wisdom of how to cut through this Gordian knot, it may be helpful to recall the attitude of Jesus when he chose to wash the feet of the disciples. We are told in John's Gospel a series of things about Jesus' state of mind: that he knew his hour had come, that he knew he was going to pass out of this world to his Father, that he loved his own in the world and loved them to the end, that he knew the Father had given all things into his hands, and knowing both that he came from God and was going to God. More than that, we are told that he rose from the table and took a towel to do the washing at no other time than after the devil had put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray him. In other words, the washing of the feet is marked by a full awareness by Jesus of his own identity as God, of his mission to save those whom he loved, and, just as importantly, of the darkness of that world and of its hostility towards him. It is in full awareness of the great gift he has to offer and just as much that the world, and even his own beloved, will, at his moment of greatest need, leave him to suffer, that Jesus washes the feet of the disciples.

The washing of the feet, then, has never been, and never ought to be, about anything other than directing us to the divinity of Christ, to his abiding love for us, and to an awareness of our own sinfulness. When any rite, however holy, becomes a tool by which Christians are divided uncharitably one against another, then the rite has been falsified. Even as Paul warns the Corinthians that, in their failure to meet the needs of the poor among them at their meals when they gather at Church, they make a lie of the Eucharist they claim to celebrate, so we, by bickering over the washing of the feet, make a mockery of the heartbreakingly beautiful mystery of the glorious Son of God, taking our nature upon himself and, out of love, suffering a shameful death at our hands, all so that we, who deserve nothing, might nonetheless be made to have a part in his very self.

This is the mystery we share in the Mandatum, that Jesus has gifted us with a share in his own Passion and betrayal, a share that marks us as dead to sin and alive to God. This is the example we are meant to share with one another, the example of Christ crucified for the love of the world.

Maundy Thursday (Mass of the Chrism)

James 5:13-16 / Mark 6:7-13

There are many who ask how we might make the priesthood more effective. Their hearts, we think, are more or less in the right place. After all, over the past generation, at least in those lands once characterized and marked by the presence of the Catholic faith, we see the Church in a kind of decline, if not everywhere in numbers, at least in her impact on society. To the extent that this lack of impact can be traced to a certain disconnect between the faith claimed in name by many in positions of influence — over family, school, workplace, town hall, or even the highest levels of government — we also rightly wonder how we can make the priest more effective in his ministry. Since society at large will no longer teach and sustain the faith through its institutions and the cycle of its observances, its public rhetoric and its professed values, it falls, unfairly or no, on the shoulders of the priest to be the face of the faith. So, we imagine that anything which can make his work more efficient has to be a good thing.

This is why Jesus' sending out of the Twelve two by two seems counter-productive. In sending them he does not equip them, at least not in any tangible way, but in fact divests them of what might make their task easier, and thus, we tell ourselves, more efficient, more capable of reaching more persons and so spreading more dramatically the power of the Good News: And He commanded them that they should take nothing for the way, but a staff only; no scrip, no bread, nor money in their purses. But to be shod with sandals, and that they should not put on two coats. In other words, while provided for a minimum standard of support, a staff and sandals, the Twelve find themselves altogether deprived of anything that might meet the challenges of unexpected trouble. They are rendered altogether reliant on the hospitality they happen to receive, and are even forbidden from finding even better hospitality should the occasion present itself. It looks as though they have been deliberately hobbled, as though Jesus did not want his Apostles to reach as many people as they could by their own devices, making best use of a less than minimum array of resources. In modern terminology, we might accuse Jesus of failing to equip the Twelve for ministry.

Yet, we need to read the passage again. From the very start, we see that Jesus does in fact equip the Twelve, granting them something to which they have no natural claim and which exceeds anything their own best plans could devise. We are told that Jesus gave them power over unclean spirits. When we hear the report of their ministry, we discover that along with their preaching calling men to repentance, they cast out many devils and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them. In short, their ministry was never  intended to be of the sort that could be duplicated by the good and faithful application of natural powers to respond to human need. Rather, the Twelve, and with them their successors in the priesthood, Christ instituted precisely to communicate to the world a share in those supernatural gifts that flow from his saving mission, especially those accomplished by his Incarnation, and particularly what was brought about in his saving death on the Cross.

While there may be much good in a kind of worldly efficiency among priests, what Jesus Christ wants for his Church, what we should want for our priests, is not a crafty mind, but rather a holy and transparent heart, a soul permeated by the oil of gladness, at whose pleasant spiritual fragrance the wicked spirits who afflict the human race are put to flight. More than the physical ills that oppress us, ills which are often best attended not by priests but by faithful men and women in the lay state, it is the spiritual dimension of man, his natural and supernatural orientation to right worship of God and his need for deliverance from sin and the powers of death and hell, that are answered in the priesthood. This is not a task that can be measured by efficiency. It is measured by holiness and charity, by an inner conformity to Jesus Christ.

This is the gift we celebrate in the Church's renewal of its priests, that we might share more fully the fruits of Christ's victory over Satan, Sin, and Hell, through the ministry of men who, in their humanity, are no different than anyone else. Let us pray for our priests, and not for an efficiency in their work, but rather an abundance of sweet consolation in their prayer. Let us pray for the renewal of that anointing each of them received, and go to them with confidence, that the power of Christ's Passion, made theirs to communicate to us, might be all the more enjoyed by the faithful, now and until the end of the world.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wednesday in Holy Week

Isaiah 53:1-12 / Luke 22:39-71; 23:1-53

And Herod and Pilate were made friends that same day: for before they were enemies one to another.

Where there exists a common cause and a common outlook, where what one desires is what another desires as well, and where both can share in the thing desired without competition, there we find the fruitful ground for friendship. Friendship, one of the noblest features of authentically human life, is perhaps the highest sort of love, a love which joins us in common cause and common concern who had no other reason to be so joined. Where nature calls upon the love of parents, siblings, kin, fellow citizens, and so on, friendship engages the most authentically human aspects of our nature, and most especially our reason and our will. As much as great friendships seem sometimes to happen to us rather than result from our choosing, and even knowing that circumstance and context can make a friendship either more or less likely to arise, we nonetheless admit that without our willing it so, we would never begin to be friends, would not sustain our friendship, or would no longer remain as friends.

On the surface, then, we might want to say that all friendship is good, that wherever it is found, human life is nobler for it. Yet, we then turn to Luke's account of the Passion, and we discover something darker, something terrible in the blossoming of friendship between Herod and Pilate. As with other friendships, this bond comes to be from a common regard for one another rooted in a common outlook on the world. And that outlook? Hatred, mockery, and dismissal of the Lord Jesus Christ, and with him any hope that God may offer us more than the world can give or be forced to produce. Herod, already a compromised man, is nonetheless not altogether lost, even after his execution of John the Baptist. Even so, when Jesus refuses to work a sign for him and remains silent before him and the priestly accusers, Herod, who has every reason to resent Pilate, makes a final decision, and turns his hope definitively away from God and plants it in Rome and her legions.

Pilate, likewise, has little reason to join in love with Herod. It was because of weak and petty kinglets such as he that Rome endured such strife in Palestine. Were Herod either stronger and so kept a better control on the enthusiasm of Galilee, or were he not there at all, Pilate could surely manage his charge with greater efficiency. Yet, Pilate knows what friendships matter to him. He knows that, however troubled his mind and heart may be by clear and gross violations of the truth and of justice for the sake of jealousy — the darkness even he could see in the hearts of the chief priests who accused Jesus before him — Pilate wills his position, and so the friendship of Cæsar and of Cæsar's friends.

In Jesus Christ, we cannot remain friendless. His claims, if we have heard them at all, compel our response. Even the most committed of agnostics must, in the face of Jesus Christ, Son of God and King of the Jews, must at least conclude that this man is not worth hearing, and so find himself bound in friendship with those who speak ill of him. These are our options, and there is not another. We can find a friend in Jesus, Jesus who is despised and rejected, left alone to die in mockery upon the Cross, and so claim as our friends all those who abandoned him, who fled, who were ineffectual in preventing his death, or who like the good thief suffered along with him. Or, we can find our friendship in hating him, in rejecting him, even in finding him innocent but, like Pilate, preferring the company and friendship of those who despise him over those who worship him as King and Lord.

This is what the Cross sets before us. There is no other way, and Jesus did not mean for there to be. He is our Lord and God, and apart from him there is no light or life, no fulfillment or joy. In his outstretched arms on the Cross, he invites us, even now, to the bright friendship of his Passion. Will we, this day, abandon our dark friendships and be willing to be enemies with them once more, knowing that in friendship with Christ, we are closer to them and their hopes than we ever had been before? Will we come to Christ, and hear him say to us, This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Tuesday in Holy Week

Jeremiah 11:18-20 / Mark 14:32-72; 15:1-46

My soul is sorrowful even unto death.

There are those who think that Jesus would have been unable truly to suffer, at least internally, if he he had enjoyed even on earth the beatific vision, that glorious participation in which mortal souls and created spirits can gaze in love and knowledge upon God himself, and so enjoy a bliss that cannot be lost. If in enjoying the beatific vision, the souls of the just are freed from all sorrow, fear, and death, then, according to this logic, either the Scriptures deceive us when they claim that Jesus was crushed with sorrow in the garden of Gethsemane —And when He was gone forward a little, He fell flat on the ground: and He prayed that, if it might be, the hour might pass from Him. — or else he did not yet enjoy that unmediated vision of God that marks the life of eternity. Since the Gospels are clear as to Jesus' suffering, not only in his body but also, indeed especially, in his sorrow and desolation, the argument asserts that Jesus must have faced his death even as we sinners do, without any assurance or comforting vision of heaven to sustain us along the way.

Yet, is it in fact true that assurance and the joy that comes from certain hope and unassailable love are, in this world, incompatible with real, acute sorrow? We are told that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, quite clearly a model of Christian faith, and clearly animated by hope in the power of the Cross and Resurrection, and animated by a heroic sharing in God's love, nonetheless spent some fifty years of her life without any sense of God's presence at all, not in her heart, nor even in the Eucharist which was so crucial to her devotional life. She was, quite simply, desolate, abandoned, forsaken. However, no one doubts that she had real faith, real hope, and real charity. There is no suggestion apart from her most rabid critics that she was anything other than a woman gifted by this graced sharing in God's life. If so, then her faith, which in essence does not differ from the beatific vision, but only in degree, can and did exist even in the midst of real suffering, of real inner sorrow.

We do not even have to look for so heroic an example. Have we not watched movies, read novels or poems, that we have read and seen before, and yet find ourselves all the same moved so deeply by what we see, even to tears and sorrow? That is, even knowing how it all turns out, even knowing before we begin, our hearts respond not as though to something unexpected, but to something which is all the same in and of itself worthy of our groaning and tears. Indeed, the better we know it, the less unexpected it is and the better tuned our own hearts are, the more keenly will we feel even those things whose coming was certain.

The suffering of Jesus in the garden is, then, as is the whole life of the Savior, Good News. We can know in his tears, in his sweat, in that sorrow even unto death that cast his very body to the ground, that none of this speaks against the active and redeeming presence of God in our lives. Even as Jesus Christ, forsaken on earth, even so did not ever leave his Father, so we can find even our most heartbreaking sadness here on earth also the place, perhaps even a privileged place, where we know the love of God.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Monday in Holy Week

Isaiah 50:5-10 / John 12:1-9

A great multitude therefore of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus' sake only, but they they might see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead.

What attracts us more, Jesus Christ or the works done by him or inspired by his Spirit? On the face of it, this question is impertinent. Who, marked in baptism by the sign of the cross, and so marked by the very death of our Lord Jesus Christ, brought to new life in his Spirit and made a living member of his body, would possibly say that something other than Jesus is the center of his life? Even so, the second option is a powerfully tempting one. Is not serving the marginalized and brutalized more important than rectitude on the finer points of orthodoxy, we might well ask? Does a devotional life, a regular attendance at First Friday Masses and praying of chaplets of Divine Mercy make any sense where one's neighbors do not have enough to eat? Where the youth on one's street see a future with no hope, their only belonging in the common cause of violence and enslaving their brothers and sisters to drugs and prostitution? Where children hardly old enough to distinguish right from left are compelled to kill their own kinsmen to serve the political and egomaniacal fantasies of a criminal, or compelled to submit their bodies to serve the grotesque lusts of privileged men with twisted hearts?

Is it any wonder, then, that the multitude came to see Lazarus, the dead man brought back to life? This deliverance would seem to sum up the whole of every other deliverance we desire, for ourselves and for others. If we could choose to visit Jesus or to raise the latter-day Lazaruses in our world from the stench of their tombs, can we say with confidence that we would not opt for the latter and not the former? If our hearts are not with Judas Iscariot, might we not at least share the sentiment of his challenge to Jesus on Mary's anointing him with the pound of ointment of right spikenard? Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?

Yet, the truth is otherwise. The works of Christ have always been a means that the world might come to live more fully in him, that the world might know that Jesus Christ is Son of the eternal Father, and might know the Father who sent him. There is no right ordering of society, no right administration of justice, which is not open towards, indeed directed at least fundamentally if not explicitly, to the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord, our Savior who died for us upon the Cross, and now is seated in glory at the right hand of the Father. This is life, this is fulness of human flourishing, and this alone answers the deepest need of every person under heaven, of every spirit, of every created thing. While one cannot claim to love Jesus and to want to see him and him alone and above all while doing nothing to remove the injustices that crush the life and hope from our brothers and sisters, offending their dignity and crying to heaven for vengeance, we cannot do so by instrumentalizing Jesus himself. Jesus is not the way to justice for the poor. Justice for the poor is both the way to and the fruit of our new life in Christ. It is only when Jesus Christ is first and before all that our every other work truly brings joy and flourishing to the world.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-9 / Philippians 2:5-11 / Matthew 26:36-75; 27:1-60

And Jesus again crying with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.

As Matthew records the Passion, Jesus at the bitter end remains alone and desolate. The traitor, Judas Iscariot, although repenting of his part in the shedding of innocent blood, nonetheless abandons hope, and went and hanged himself with a halter. Peter, so vigorous in his protests that he would remain with Jesus even to the bitter even, even at the cost of his life, remembered the word of Jesus which He had said ... and going forth, he wept bitterly. Pilate, who found no crime in him nor case against him but more desirous of his own power and fearful of the mob, had long since washed his hand of the whole affair. The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders remained only long enough to mock him: He save others, Himself He cannot save; if He be the king of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him; He trusted in God, let Him now deliver Him if He will have Him; for He said: I am the Son of God. The crowd who remained can listen and watch only in utter misunderstanding: This man calleth Elias and Let be; let us see whether Elias will come to deliver Him. Even the woman who had been loyal to him in his ministry — Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee as well as many women unnamed — nonetheless remain afar off, not close by to comfort him in his last hours. Joseph of Arimathea, so brave in facing Pilate afterward in requesting the body for burial, nonethess is not heard earlier in the Sanhedrin. Even God his Father seems curiously and tragically distant — My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?

There is no one who remains faithful to the end in Matthew's Gospel. There is not one faithful disciple who can claim to have stood by Jesus at every step of the way, who was willing, rather than coerced like Simon of Cyrene, to pick up his cross and walk with Jesus every step of the way to Golgotha, there to die forsaken and alone. In this, we know we are no different. We, who face dangers and challenges far less than those faced by Jesus' disciples and his fellow Jews at the time of his Passion, have rejected Jesus or remained afar off nonetheless. We have caved in to threats less pressing, to temptations less compelling than Judas' bag of silver, and we find ourselves far less willing to depart from the fruits of our sin than even the damnable betrayer was with his thirty pieces.

Yet, this is Good News. As desolate as our tragic and terrible denial of Jesus may be, the mystery we celebrate this day is the fact that it is precisely for such as these, for such as us, that Jesus died so painfully upon the cross. Even as there is no one who can claim with any right to have been there with him, all the way through, so there is no one to whom his mercy does not extend. Now is the time to set down, once and for all, this last defense of our sinful self. Now is the time to refuse that part of our heart that urges us to feel especially dark and despondent, as we have failed yet once again to be more fervent disciples of Jesus Christ through our broken and halfhearted embrace of Lent. The death of Jesus, abandoned on his cross, scatters those foolish and deadly excuses. We are forgiven in his blood, and by his death, even we have been called to life eternal.

Stop the excuses. Delay no longer. Christ died once for all that you may live. Embrace him, give thanks, and live!